At the most southern point of Egypt, a few kilometres away from the border with Sudan, a different and unique culture of Egyptian people exists, and those are the Nubians. The Nubian town of Abu Simbel has around 2500 inhabitants who pretty much live on welcoming the tourists arriving from all corners of the world to visit the ancient temple that bears the same name of the town.
The enormous rock temple complex of Abu Simbel is located right on the banks of Lake Nasser. From the main entrance of the UNESCO World Heritage site known as the “Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae”, just follow the concrete path for about 300 meters until you reach the actual temple. The Abu Simbel Temple complex -which comprises two temples-, was built over the course of twenty years during the reign of the powerful Pharaoh, Ramesses II in the 13th century BC.
During the 1960, in efforts to improve navigation across the Nile River as well as providing irrigation during seasons of drought, the Aswan High Dam was built. The building of the dam resulted in the creation of Lake Nasser, which threatened the existence of the Abu Simbel Temple. Thus, in 1968 and at an estimated cost of around $40 million, the temple complex was completely relocated in what is known as one of the greatest feats of archaeological engineering. Brick-by-brick, the entire temple complex was meticulously moved about 180 meters west and 64 meters further down from where it was originally built.
In true demonstration of propaganda and its effect, even though there is no proof that the battle of Kadesh that Ramesses II led against the Hittites has been won by the Egyptians, and some historians even say that it probably ended in a draw, the warrior Pharaoh still wanted to promote his glory, and thus he had the temple of Abu Simbel built to celebrate his ‘claimed’ victory in that battle. Another theory says that the purpose of the grand temple was to impress Egypt’s neighbours in the south and to reinforce the status of the Egyptian ruler at the time.
The temple’s entrance is guarded with four colossal seated statues of Ramesses himself measuring 20 metres high, depicted wearing the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt. The statue on the left side of the entrance was damaged in an ancient earthquake during the Pharaoh’s reign. However, restoration of the statue was never carried out, although the broken head and torso can still be seen resting at the feet of the intact enormous lower part of the statue. In between the four main colossi, you will notice several smaller statues which represent; his favourite wife (Nefertari), his mother (Mut-Tuy), his first two sons and his six daughters. If you look closely, you will also see a row of 22 squatting baboon statues in the lintel welcoming the sun rise (referred to as, Watchers of the Dawn). Another detail on the entrance is the statue of the falcon-headed Ra Horakhty holding a feather (user) in his right hand and a Ma’at (symbol for the goddess of justice) in his left, which together represent Ramesses’ throne name “User-Maat-Re” translating, ‘the Justice of Re is powerful’.
Once you enter inside the temple, you will find that it is surprisingly huge, given the fact that it was carved from the bare bedrock into the mountain side. First, there is a hypostyle hall lined with eight huge pillars depicting Ramesses as a deity and the god of the underworld. On the walls around the pillars, there are bas-reliefs that depict the Battle of Kadesh and other important military campaigns that the Pharaoh led and fought in against the Hittites. Just like how most ancient Egyptian temples are known to be constructed, the inner rooms of the temple have a triangular layout with rooms decreasing in size from the entrance to the sanctuary.
Behind the hall (referred to as pronaos), there is a second, smaller hall filled with scenes depicting the royal couple making offerings to the gods and the two sacred boats of Amun and Ra-Horakhty. Finally along the temple, lies a tiny little sanctuary containing the four seated figures of the gods; Ra-Horakhtym of Heliopolis, King Ramesses as a deity, Amun Ra of Thebes and Ptah of Memphis.
It is said that the temple of Abu Simbel was built in such a way that the sun will be in alignment with the temple and illuminate the sanctuary on two specific dates, October the 22nd and February the 22nd. The two dates indicate the birthday of the King and his coronation day. The sun would be illuminating the entire sanctuary with the exception of the statue of Path, a god of the Underworld who will always remain in the dark. It should be noted that the relocation of the temple was so accurate that only a one day difference occurred in this phenomenon. Although some sources suggest that this one-day-shift might be due to the slight movements of Earth over the centuries.
Parallel to the main axis of the temple, a couple of minor chambers exist. Those feel more like a warren and have unpolished murals and reliefs.
Right next to the great temple of King Ramesses, there is a smaller temple dedicated to his wife which bears her name, the Temple of Nefertari. It is worth noting that this was only the second time a temple was ever dedicated to a queen. Even though Ramesses didn’t refrain from adding statues of him in front of his wife’s temple, his statues have the exact same size as those of Nefertari (10 meters high), which shows the paradigm shift induced after the ending of the Akhenaton’s reign and indicates how much Ramesses honoured Nefertari.
The smaller temple contains a hypostyle hall similar to the one in the larger temple, but it contains only six pillars. A little vestibule leads to a sanctuary dedicated to Hathor, the goddess of joy, music and motherhood.
On first glance, the massiveness of the iconic relief figures might be overwhelming. However, when exploring the temples with close attention, one would see that every inch of those magnificent buildings have been crafted with amazing attention to the tiniest of details. Ramesses II built the temple complex as a lasting testament to his enduring glory and prevailing reign. He chose to build it on a holy site to solidify his god-like image to both his followers and enemies.
If the Pyramids of Giza are the most iconic artefacts from the ancient Egyptians era, then these 3000 year old temples with their grandeur come in second place, since today, they are the most visited ancient site in Egypt after the Pyramids.
- Hawaas,Zahi: The Mysteries of Aby Simbel: Ramesses II and the Temples of the Rising Sun. ISBN 978-9774246234
- Fitzgerald, Stephanie (2008). Ramses II: Egyptian Pharaoh, Warrior and Builder. New York: Compass Point Books. ISBN 978-0-7565-3836-1
- Centre, UNESCO World Heritage. “Nubian Monuments from Abu Simbel to Philae”. whc.unesco.org. Retrieved 2018-02-24